The high price of a Sri Lankan family’s attempt to flee the crisis

KUDAMADUWELLA, Sri Lanka, Aug 10 (Reuters) – As lawlessness gripped the Sri Lankan city of Colombo in May, Meenu Mekala and Nirosh Ravindra gambled with their family’s savings on a two-week trip and 4,700 km aboard a rusty trawler with their two young sons. The decision ended in ruin.

Meenu, a Buddhist, and Nirosh, a Christian, met and fell in love as migrant workers in Dubai, despite opposition from their families. They married in 2005 in Nirosh’s home village of Kudamaduwella, a two-hour drive north of Colombo.

They are among hundreds of Sri Lankans who tried to escape an unprecedented economic collapse by boarding fishing boats bound for Australia.

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Sri Lankan Navy data shows that nearly 1,000 people, many of them children, have been intercepted in Sri Lankan waters as they attempted to flee the country in the past three months. Leaving the country unofficially is considered a crime.

Some, like Meenu and Nirosh, made it to Australian waters, where they were captured, deported and then prosecuted by Sri Lankan authorities.

Meenu is accused of leaving the country from an unauthorized port, according to legal documents from the Sri Lankan police’s criminal investigation department seen by Reuters.

Nirosh, charged with an additional charge of assisting with travel logistics, was denied bail and is awaiting trial.

He denies the additional charge against him, Meenu said.

Nirosh’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment on his case. The Sri Lankan police and navy declined to comment on the couple’s case, citing ongoing legal proceedings.

“I was heartbroken,” Meenu said, recalling the flight back to Sri Lanka on June 18 with a guard for every two passengers.

A spokesman for the Australian Border Force declined to comment on the family’s case, citing confidentiality.

Hit hard by the pandemic, which has decimated tourism, and by tax cuts imposed by the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis since its independence from Great Britain in 1948.

Fuel queues and runaway inflation have become the norm for Sri Lankans. Months of unrest toppled Rajapaksa in July after protesters occupied government buildings in the commercial capital Colombo.

On May 9, after deadly violence erupted between pro- and anti-government protesters, Meenu and Nirosh made the decision to leave.

Meenu, 44, and Nirosh, 46, paid a total of 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,400) to unidentified smugglers for themselves and their two sons, aged 13 and 11.

NAVY PATROLS

Aboard the Sri Lankan Navy’s Fast Attack Craft P 4446, a lookout above deck spots a fishing boat sitting low in the water – a telltale sign of a boat laden with migrants.

“Starboard, two nautical miles, ship sighted sir,” a voice on the radio crackled from the ship’s deck. The officer commanding the PRPD Dayarathne gently pushed the throttle forward.

The daily patrol is one of about 50 along the Sri Lankan coast, according to the navy, as authorities try to intercept migrants before they leave Sri Lankan waters.

Shirtless fishermen watched as a detachment of five men boarded the boat, armed with machine guns and batons. They searched the men and the boat, but it carried little more than nets and fish.

The Sri Lankan Navy intercepted one boat carrying potential migrants in 2021, and none in 2020. In the three months to July, that number rose to 15.

A total of 911 people were arrested trying to leave Sri Lanka illegally in 2022, putting it on track to surpass 2013, the year the navy began keeping detailed records. Almost all were bound for Australia.

“We saw these boats carrying almost 100 people,” Dayarathne said. “It’s very dangerous.”

If caught by Australian or Sri Lankan authorities, passengers risk having their passports canceled for five years. The alleged organizers were denied bail and tried in Sri Lanka, with the prospect of prison terms.

Unlike previous waves of migration attempts by persecuted Tamil groups during the country’s civil war, many are now from the predominantly Sinhalese community.

“Every Sri Lankan thinks if you have a chance, you leave.” said Lakshan Dias, a lawyer who has represented potential migrants. “It’s pure desperation.”

ROUGH TRIP

Some, like Meenu’s ship, make it through, evading patrols under cover of darkness.

For the first two nights, the sea off the southern coast of Sri Lanka was choppy. Crammed onto the 30ft boat, 41 passengers battled nausea and hunger as the waves pounded the hull.

The family slept in the open to escape the stench of vomit in the hold. By day, the harsh sun and salt water spraying on the deck burned their skin. Meenu said she wanted to turn back, but it was too late.

On June 9, and suffering from a fuel problem, the boat approached the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian coral atoll off the southern coast of Indonesia.

It wasn’t long before they were intercepted by the Australian Coastguard – one of four vessels that left Sri Lanka that month, according to the Australian Border Force.

After about a week on a series of Australian Coastguard vessels, they disembarked and were told they would be returned to Sri Lanka, Meenu said.

Nirosh’s arrest left the family with no source of income, along with mounting legal bills.

Meenu visits him twice a week, taking an hour-long bus ride to Negombo prison and bringing him homemade food to share with other prisoners.

During a recent visit, he complained about the poor quality of drinking water and begged her to take him out, she said.

With the family’s passports canceled for five years, their dream of returning to Dubai is on hold and Meenu has to care for the children at home, where icons of Buddha and Jesus adorn the walls.

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Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Santhush Fernando in Kadumaduwella; additional reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alexandra Hudson

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